College Admission Essay Leadership Competencies

One way to blow your MBA essay on leadership is to talk about your leadership skills in general terms without providing examples or elaboration. When answering the leadership question, your goal should be three-fold: Identify your specific leadership traits, show examples of those attributes, and reveal the impact you had.

1. Identify Your Leadership Skills

First, look critically at your experiences. Can you think of instances in which you led people to action? In what ways did you motivate? Have there been situations when you’ve stood up, taken the reins, and won the trust of others? What steps did you take? What specific talents and qualities did you access to inspire and persuade? Don’t think about the broad term, “leadership”; focus on 1-3 of leadership’s sub-qualities: initiative, vision, integrity, empathy, listening, responsibility, reliability, planning, etc.

2. Show How You Lead

When detailing your leadership experiences, feel free to think outside the box…er, the office. Not every example needs to originate at work, and don’t concentrate solely on classic hierarchical situations with titles. Instead, consider less obvious examples, like inspiring your college cheerleading squad or coaching your brother’s Little League baseball team. Still drawing a blank? Have you ever initiated and organized a clothing drive? Managed a band? Led a fundraising initiative? Campaigned for a local politician? Strong leadership examples come in all shapes and sizes.

3. Reveal Your Impact

Top MBA programs want to admit people who make a difference, who leave a void when they depart. The recent outpouring of tribute to Steve Jobs at his resignation from Apple testifies to his super-sized contribution to his company, his industry, the world. You don’t have to reveal that kind of impact. However, the best way to show potential for significant impact in the future is to show you have contributed in the past.  How did your leadership make a difference to individuals? To your organization? To your community? What was the impact of the experience on you? How did you grow from it?

These three elements comprise the essentials in a strong MBA leadership essay. Include all three to craft a winner. Leave one or two out, and well, you could be blowing it

By Linda Abraham, CEO and founder of Accepted.comand co-author of the soon-to released book, MBA Admission for Smarties: The No-Nonsense Guide to Acceptance at Top Business Schools.  Linda has been helping MBA applicants gain acceptance to top MBA programs since 1994.

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"Leadership" is a major buzzword in college admissions; it is found across applications through essay supplements, work experience, and extracurricular activities. But what do admissions officers really want to see?

Why Leadership Matters

On a scale of 1-4, with 4 being of most important value, schools like Princeton, Yale, Stanford, MIT, and University of Pennsylvania gave personal character a 4/4 in terms of importance in an application. This specific data is derived from Synocate, and the software allows users to search for other factors influencing an application such as talent/ability, work experience, and extracurricular activities. Yale and Stanford are the top two schools focused on character AND extra curricular involvement, giving both a 4/4 in terms of importance.

This data reveals that leadership is one of the best, and most impactful, ways to show character and exceptional extra curricular involvement, especially for Top 50 schools. Admissions officers from these schools want to find students who are visionary, entrepreneurial, thoughtful, inquisitive, and exemplary.

What Admissions Officers Want to See

These are direct excerpts from Top 50 schools' Undergraduate Admissions websites, note the similarities:

" We want to see the impact you have had on that club, in your school, or in the larger community, and we want to learn of the impact that experience has had on you" - Stanford University

"We seek to identify students who will be the best educators of one another and their professors--individuals who will inspire those around them during their College years and beyond" - Harvard University

"Decade after decade, Yalies have set out to make our world better. We are looking for students we can help to become the leaders of their generation in whatever they wish to pursue" - Yale University

"The Admissions Committee is interested in knowing the duration of your commitments as this gives us insight into the depth of your involvement and a sense of the impact you've made in your community. Note leadership roles and/or specific responsibilities. These details highlight your initiative and developed capacity as a leader, role model, and doer" - University of Pennsylvania

"We take particular note of leadership and exceptional talents or accomplishments" -
Princeton University

There is definitely a common theme here. Words like "impact," and "inspire" highlight why "leadership" has become such a buzzword this application cycle. Admissions officers across Ivies, Stanford, UC's, and other Top 50 schools ask themselves these type of questions while reviewing applications: How has this student made lasting change to their club/team/etc through his leadership? How has he inspired others with his attitude? How can this student bring that spirit to my university's campus?

How You Can Show and Develop Leadership

An application can answer these questions in many ways, but a student must properly market his leadership skills and experience in the right way. It is not enough to simply "hold" the position of National Honor Society President or Soccer team Captain if nothing changes due to your leadership. It is also detrimental to look for leadership in every extracurricular, as you risk looking unprioritized and uncommitted. Anyone can apply to be Vice President of Math Club or run for ASB President. The key to writing about leadership is to show, not tell. These are some examples:

Explain your influence on club attendance; did you gain more members? Add more dedicated volunteers or players?

Give an example of your creative thinking through the activity; did you plan a fundraiser that brought everyone together or increased the club's budget?

Write about an anecdote when you realized you wanted to make a change and how you did it; did you focus more on organization? Attitude? Mentorship?

Check out this Synocate blog post for more specific details on how to deepen extra curricular involvement regarding the questions above. Admissions officers will read the applications of thousands of club presidents, captains, and elected officials. It is not enough just to have a position. Look for ways to better evolve your club or team; don't be afraid to make changes for the better. Tangible accomplishments within leadership are what show character-- not just the position itself.

For more comparative analysis and admission data check out and for specific universities like those mentioned above.

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